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The difference between alligators and caimans

It is easy to confuse caimans and small alligators. There's two species of alligators and several species of caiman.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — An expert from the Riverbanks Zoo gives a breakdown of the difference between alligators and caimans and what you can keep in mind.

Recently there's been a lot of chatter on social media about the possibility of a caiman being in Lake Murray.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources says while it's very unlikely, it could be possible. 

They also say it shouldn't be too much of a concern.

Sean Foley is the curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo. He says both alligators and caimans are similarly related.

"If you're in central South America, then those are going to be caimans. If you're in North America like where we are now, that's going to be alligators," said Foley. "The only other species of alligator in the world is actually in China."

RELATED: Are there alligators or caimans in Lake Murray?

There's two species of alligators and several species of caiman.

In South Carolina, alligators can be found in the Midlands area and more so towards the coast.

"Here you'll find them in Congaree, so there's the Heritage Preserve, the Monument, things like that. That's where you going to find gators mostly," explained Foley. "They can be found in all kinds of freshwater. They like the swampy areas, but you can actually find them in lakes and rivers and things like that."

It is easy to confuse caimans and small alligators. Caimans typically have rougher scales on the belly and on their back. There's also more scales on a caiman's head. Alligators have rounder teeth and are bigger than caimans.

Most caimans only grow to four to five feet long. Black caimans can grow up to alligator size, up to twelve feet in the wild.

Caimans are not from the United States. If they are found in the US, most of the time it is due to pet trade.

"There are several species of Caiman that are for sale so it's very feasible that somebody did purchase one and it could be released and they could release it basically anywhere," said Foley. "That would be strongly discouraged. You don't want to release any wildlife that's not native to our state."

If an animal is released in the wildlife habitat it is supposed to be in, it may not survive the winter and it can be terrible for the ecosystem.

Many people are wondering what they should do if they see an alligator or caiman.

"Really you just stay away from them. They're not going to come after people. Humans are not on the menu," explained Foley. "If you avoid them, that's all you have to do. You don't feed them, don't antagonize them. Just let them be and they're going to let you be."

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